Building your kids a wonderland

The Torborg boys of New Paltz have an underground playground in their house. Ben, Sam and Peter (seven, five and three respectively) are thrilled to have a place to roughhouse. (Photos by Lauren Thomas)

It’s spring 2020. The schools have just been shut down. You pretty much can’t take your kids anywhere. Their friends can’t come over for a playdate. They’re going stir-crazy. 

You can’t go to your usual place of business, either, so you suddenly have a lot of time on your hands. Homeschooling can’t go on all day long. You want to use your time (and theirs) productively. You want to provide enrichment that also helps to burn off some of that freewheeling kid-energy. What do you do?

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For some families who had space to spare in their homes or yards, the answer was obvious: Build them a new play structure, or add onto an existing one. Better yet, let the kids help!

One year on, there are lots of stories of people who used some of their pandemic-enforced downtime to turn their home environments into places where their children could more easily exercise their muscles and their imaginations. This is the tale about three of these families. It turns out that they had certain experiences in common.

For one thing, kids have lots of ideas of what they want from a playspace. They are eager to lend a hand in designing and building. 

For another, making a play structure absolutely does not require the expenditure of significant amounts of money. A whole lot of materials can be repurposed, whether free stuff on Craigslist or cut branches from weedy trees cleared from the yard. 

Also, once in-person classes resumed and it became possible for youngsters to socialize outdoors with other kids from their pod at school, these backyard creations instantly became enviable enticements for other kids to visit.

The Torborg family

For Jeff and Jennifer Torborg of New Paltz, that happy day of welcoming small visitors has not yet arrived, because their newly created playspace is indoors. Jeff is an electrical engineer. Jen, who was a teacher for 16 years until her first child was born, is now teaching English online to kids in China. Forced by circumstance to homeschool, she turned the finished half of the basement of their 1950s ranch house into a cozy classroom with a big screen for remote classes. 

Just beyond the door into the utility/storage part of the basement lurked tremendous untapped potential for keeping their three sons busy. Ben is seven, Sam five, and Peter three.

The Torborgs cleared a space to set up an art room, with materials ready to hand whenever the kids want to paint or do crafts. A big wooden table is surrounded by four colorful benches, one painted by Jeff and one by each of the boys.

Ben, Sam and Peter aren’t exactly go-play-quietly-by-yourself material. They’re physically active, little bundles of energy who enjoy climbing on, hanging from, swinging on — and throwing — things. Upstairs in the Torborg residence wasn’t a great place for that, and the weather isn’t always conducive to the boys using the back yard to blow off steam. “We were initially talking about the basement being a place where they could throw balls and not damage anything,” says Jen.

That place for roughhousing was created when Jeff built a divider wall separating part of the basement from the storage area – a wall with plenty of sturdy structural wood that could be used not only to bounce balls off, but also to support play equipment. 

“First we thought it would be neat to make a platform that they could climb up to,” Jeff recounts. “Then we thought maybe we should close it in. Then we thought it would be cool if we added monkey bars.”

One corner of the new room sported a playhouse, with a window and a working door left over from a cabinet that the Torborgs replaced in the process of renovating the house when they moved in two years ago. Peter, the youngest, likes to pretend that it’s his ice-cream stand, dispensing treats through the window. The older boys are more likely to use the playhouse as base when playing tag or a ball game.

Rubber mats cover the area under the monkey bars. In the middle of the playroom, a spinning swing made of netting hangs from the ceiling, encouraging boisterous movement within a small radius. Along the walls are basketball hoops Jeff cut out of wooden planks. The boys painted it, Ben also painted a wooden target with numbers for scoring points, like a dartboard. Blocks sawn from two-by-fours create a climbing wall leading to the playhouse platform. 

“This is a project that keeps growing and growing over time,” says Jen.

What’s the next improvement? Murals on the playroom walls, perhaps – using the kids’ own designs, blown up with a projector, as templates. 

The Torborg boys are waiting for it to be safe to invite visitors over. “What this space needs is friends,” says Jen. “The other kids can’t come inside yet. Things like this playhouse become more exciting when you can share it with a friend.”

The Bratman-Waldie family

Eight year-old Alma and ten year-old Raya (l-r) are the daughters of John and Helanna Waldie.

Because their little wonderland is spread out along one side of their three-acre back yard in Gardiner, ten-year-old Raya and eight-year-old Alma Bratman-Waldie have already been able to enjoy playing host to their podmates from school on their days off. That yard also has room for a big garden, the domain of their mom, Helanna Bratman, who works in an agriculture program for youth run by the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Beacon.

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Their dad, John Waldie, who teaches art at Washingtonville High School, admits to being “kind of a project addict.” Constructing things in the back yard for his kids is an ongoing enterprise. It uses skills accumulated, he says, largely from watching YouTube videos. “I call it a combination of bravery and ignorance,” he jokes.

Several of those structures predate Covid-19: a zipline, a rope network for climbing, a ladder made from downed branches, a sort of xylophone made from hanging lengths of PVC pipe. But the cancellation in 2020 of the girls’ usual primary summertime activity, Wild Earth’s outdoor day-camp program, inspired John to raise the ante. “When Wild Earth closed for the season, we figured we’ve got to find something to occupy our time,” he says. “Alma was the one asking about wanting a fort.”

With the two girls as his helpers, John undertook his most ambitious outdoor construction yet, an elaborate freestanding treehouse that surrounds the trunk of a young maple. “I didn’t want to attach it to the tree. I wanted to give the tree space to grow,” he explains.

He designed the treehouse using a balloon framing technique. The studs go from ground-level up to the railing level, with concrete block as footings. “We laid it out on the ground, and these two whacked in a lot of nails,” says John, indicating his daughters. “It was almost like an Amish barnraising, without the Amish.”

The structure was cobbled together from a combination of repurposed lumber, naturally downed trees, and other materials that John cut as part of a thinning project in the more overgrown sections of the yard. The platform for the sitting area in the top of the treehouse is made from fancier stuff: “Because of the lumber shortages during the pandemic, all that we could get was cedar,” explains John.

With or without friends over, the girls love to sit in the kid-sized Adirondack chairs in their new eyrie. “It’s a nice place to read,” says Raya. “You can watch the deer. They come around to the same spot at the same time every day.” 

“We pretend that this is our house,” adds Alma.

Getting up to their lofty perch is half the fun, with “lots of trails to get up there,” in John’s words. The aerial pathways are ingeniously intertwined. “This is like a pirate ladder,” says Raya, demonstrating how to climb the rigging. For lifting necessaries to their hideaway, the girls devised a dumbwaiter from an old joint-compound bucket and a rope. John says that he obtained many other components of the structure for free, or nearly, including a slide from the materials exchange at the town transfer station.

Despite its disparately sourced parts, the overall effect of the treehouse and its adjoining play structures is of something that grew organically over time. How will they expand next, as the community rebounds from the pandemic? That remains to be seen, but the Bratman-Waldies still have a lot of weed trees they want to clear out. 

If those girls start watching do-it-yourself construction videos on YouTube, there’ll be no stopping them.

Two year-old Aubrey Bartholemew of New Paltz enjoys partaking in many different activities in her backyard playground.

The Bartholomew family

Another back-yard paradise for kids has been created in the course of several years behind the New Paltz home of Amy and Alex Bartholomew. Amy teaches astronomy and Alex teaches geology at SUNY New Paltz. They have two daughters, six-year-old Annabeth and two-year-old Aubrey. “It’s kind of like this Frankenstein thing that keeps being added onto,” explains Alex.

In fact, it’s a challenge to tease out which components went up pre-Covid and which are the newer additions. 

Out front of the house is a cluster of chairs and little tables that Amy recently acquired – “purely a pandemic purchase,” she says – as a way to congregate socially before friends could be invited indoors. Out back, the yard slopes downward from the house, with the top level featuring a couple of new structures, a “garage for the toy cars” and a big tent protecting some cots and chairs from the rain, ostensibly for back-yard camping. “My daughter plays with them like they’re her castle,” says Alex. 

There’s also a pink playhouse that dates back to Annabeth’s fourth birthday, sporting the family’s street number plus “½.” “We put it together and painted it together,” says her dad.

Downslope is a bench made from a tree trunk, an enormous sandbox that Alex built from scratch two years ago, and a swingset of similar vintage. A new crossbar made from a sturdy limb is a new addition, along with some replacement swings. “It has been morphing,” says Amy. “Just about everything in our yard is free or from a yard sale.”

That swing set forms the oldest side of a big square formation of play equipment. In aggregate, there are four towers, two climbing walls, seven swings, two trapezes, five slides and two sets of monkey bars. Some elements are brand-new, squeezed into place during long hours of not being able to teach during the pandemic. “I got that part free on Craigslist from a lady in Stone Ridge who used to run a daycare,” Alex says, pointing to one connecting section.

A little further downslope is a line of trees where several new play features were installed this past year. There’s a tire swing, and a zipline with a handsome wooden platform and ladder for climbing onto the upper end of the line, with a bosun’s chair for Aubrey to ride in and a disc seat for Annabeth. A mulberry tree with no low limbs has been rendered climbable by the attachment of wooden blocks threaded with straps that buckle tightly around the trunk. “My daughter wants me to build a treehouse in this tree,” says Alex, gazing up into the mulberry, contemplating a future project.

At the lowest point of the back yard, nature takes over, with a little stream running through. The trees growing more thickly together are actually a sugarbush, says Amy: “We tapped a bunch of our maple trees this spring and made maple syrup.”

As the pandemic wanes and mid-Hudsonites begin to emerge from their isolation, these enhanced play-places become welcoming sites for young and old to gather. “It has been nice for kids to come over. Annabeth just turned six in May, and she had the first birthday party we’ve heard of in a year,” Amy notes. “Before, on a kid’s birthday, there was always an activity. Now they’re just happy to play outside.”

At chez Bartholomew, as at the other homes, the whole family gets involved in the never-ending building projects. Alex says that he sometimes works on them with toddler Aubrey strapped to his back.

Any teases Alex, asking whether he’s just building what he wished he had as a kid, 

Ah, don’t we all?

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